March 24, 2012

Las Vegas WASPs of World War II

U.S. Air Force photo, Air Force Museum
WASPs - Women Airforce Service Pilots

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. “” The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, was an organization that existed from 1942 through 1944, composed of women trained as pilots.

The WASPs began with 28 women, hired for their extensive civilian flight experience. Later applicants went through the same pilot training course as men, except for acrobatics or formation flying. By the program’s end, 1,082 WASPs had earned their pilot wings.

Once qualified, they were assigned as civil service employees at various bases across the US, flying various training and support missions and delivering aircraft from factories to depots and bases for overseas delivery.

The WASP unit at Nellis (then known as Las Vegas Army Air Field) existed from Feb. 25, 1944 until the program ended on Dec. 20, 1944. From an initial group of ten, as many as 25 WASPs were stationed here before the program closed. Although they were civil service employees, they were treated as officers and billeted on base with commissioned Women’s Army Corps officers.

They were formed up into a squadron, later a flight, with Ruth C. Jones from the original group of ten as their “commander.” The unit flew most aircraft here, including the P-39, AT-6, AT-11, TB-26 trainers towing aerial targets, and as B-17 bomber co-pilots on training missions.

In a 1989 interview, Virginia Dulaney Campbell related that while flying a TB-26 and towing a target for B-17 gunnery students, she found out that not all students knew they were supposed to shoot at the target sleeve. One time, after landing back at Las Vegas AAF, a student gunner asked her “what was that white flag doing hanging along behind your airplane?” It turned out he had been shooting at her TB-26.

One WASP was killed in the line of duty. Beverly Jean Moses was the AT-11 copilot on an instrument training flight crew on July 18, 1944. Her flight was diverted to search for a parachute reported near Mt. Charleston, but was not heard from again. A search the next day found her aircraft’s wreckage on the mountainside; Moses, Lt. Frank Smith, the pilot, and 4 other personnel were all killed in the crash.

Margaret “Maggie” Gee was one of just two Chinese-American WASPs. From Berkeley, CA, she was a shipyard welder and draftsman, jobs which helped pay for her flying lessons before she was accepted for flight training in early 1944. After graduating in September, 1944, she was here for little more than 3 months before the WASPs were disbanded.

Under political pressure from various groups, the WASP program was cancelled and all remaining pilots were released effective Dec. 20, 1944. Several married pilots they met here, including Madelon Burcham, who married 1st Lt. Jack Hill, a B-17 pilot and Base Operations Officer. She and Maggie Gee were two of the 300 surviving WASPs who received a Congressional Gold Medal in a Washington, D.C., ceremony on 10 March 2010.

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